Duane Ebata, artistic director of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, died of cancer at his home on May 11. He was 49.
Born in Hawaii, Ebata moved to Southern California as a young boy. As a student at Cal State Long Beach, he was an activist in the Japanese-American reparations movement, working to build community awareness and participation. At Cal State, he also began to combine his strong organizational skills with his interest in theater, poetry and other performing arts. He was involved in the coordination of campus concerts, with an emphasis on Asian Pacific themes.
After a stint as an instructor in the Educational Opportunity program at Cal State, Ebata came to the JACCC in 1984, first as the house manager at the new (built in ’83) Japan America Theater, then as general manager, although his heart was always in the arts. He was instrumental in bringing in both Japanese and American taiko drum ensembles, as well as the 1997 and 1999 North American taiko conferences. He also worked to create performing opportunities for contemporary artists on both sides of the ocean. Coordinating the 1996 tour of Japan’s Grand Kabuki troupe through the U.S. further broadened his vision. He regularly visited Japan to develop future exchange.
“He was kind of my mentor in the three years I worked with him,” said Bryan Yamimi, at the JACCC. “I know I would feel he is right behind me watching over my shoulder for a long time to come.”
A frequent lecturer on Japanese-American performing arts, Ebata served on panels and the boards of local, regional and national funding agencies and presenting organizations, and on the board of Visual Communications and other community and local arts organizations.
The gang at the JACCC had counted on Ebata bouncing back, as he’d always done before, and had planned a concert for him at the Japan America Theater on June 16, just the kind of thing that would have lifted his spirits. Instead, a public service in his memory, at 6:30 p.m. on the Plaza, will open the concert. There will be more guests in addition to the original lineup of musicians and theater artists: June Kuramoto (of Hiroshima), Daniel Ho (Canoe Club Kilauea), Michael Paulo, Lane Nishikawa and others.
For me, Duane was a kind of jovial Buddha or god of prosperity, not just because of his looks but also because of his very “up” vibe and energy — valuable attributes for a nonprofit arts organization. His goal was to help Japanese-American artists grow beyond the local scene and to build a sense of community through cultural exchange with Asia. Although he was the rare arts administrator who lacked the closet-performer ego, I couldn’t help but think, at the service held for him at Senshin Buddhist Temple on May 17, that the mourners could have filled the 880-seat Japan America Theater. It will be hard to replace that kind of vision, direction and leadership.
Duane Ebata is survived by his wife, Donna, and two daughters, Lindsay and Lauren.